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Cutbacks put troops taking leave on commercial flights

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Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2013 at 01:46 AM
TAMPA -

For troops serving in the U.S. Central Command region, there will be at least one benefit from reductions in military spending.

Coming home for the Army’s Rest and Recuperation Leave program will be quicker.

That’s because, starting Monday, troops will no longer take charter flights home, which required going to Kuwait and making a stopover in Atlanta or Dallas before reaching their destinations.

Instead, troops serving in the region stretching from Egypt to Afghanistan will be given a ticket aboard a commercial airliner.

“The change will improve operational readiness by reducing soldier travel days and improve soldier quality of life by providing them with the most direct means of commercial transportation to their final leave destinations of choice,” said Hank Minitrez, a spokesman for the Army, which runs the program.

The change to commercial flights was made because there are fewer troops coming home. At the program’s peak, about 400 troops were coming home every day. Now that there are about 15 to 20 per day, Minitrez said.

With the end of the war in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, there are fewer troops to bring home. There are about 60,000 there now, with about half scheduled to leave by the end of the year.

The White House is in the process of determining how many troops to leave in Afghanistan after 2014, when the bulk of combat forces are scheduled to leave that war-torn country.

Commercial flights are now more economical and should save nearly $400 per seat, for an overall savings of nearly $700,000 a month, Minitrez said.

Since Centcom began the special leave program, more than 1.2 million service members have flown home aboard charter flights. The vast majority – 96 percent – are members of the Army.

Despite budget cuts ordered by the Pentagon, which finds itself with less money to spend, the leave program itself will not change, Minitrez said.

Since 2007, the program gives 18 days off to troops deployed to the region for 15 months, with at least 270 days on active military operations. Those deployed for 12 months with 270 days on active military operations will be allowed to take up to 15 leave days.

In 2007, because troop deployment time was increased from a year to 15 months, three extra leave days were added to the program.

“This is not the end of the R&R program,” Minitrez said.

Congress and senior Pentagon leaders recognize that the program is “integral to maintaining combat readiness for units deployed and engaged in intense, continuous operations,” he said.

“The program promotes increased operational effectiveness by mitigating the effects of prolonged combat stress and family separation. The program will remain in effect until terminated by the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.”


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